It is no secret that Syria has had a long and complicated history, with its conflicts stretching across ten years with no apparent solution on the horizon. The Syrian Civil War, which has completely devastated the entire country and its neighbours, is a complex conflict that involves several nations, rebel groups, and terrorist organizations. Starting as a non-violent protest in early 2011, it quickly escalated into a full-blown war. Since the fighting began, there have been more than 470,000 deaths, over 1 million injured, and millions are turning into refugees.
Many different theories involve the start of the Syrian Civil War. However, one of the most significant historical events is the Arab Spring, when a series of political and economic protests broke out in Egypt and Tunisia. These successful revolts served as inspiration for pro-democracy activists in Syria. In March of 2011, the Syrian government arrested 15 Syrian schoolchildren for writing Arab Spring-inspired graffiti. This decision then sparked outrage and demonstrations throughout Syria. The public demanded the release of the children and overall freedoms for the people of Syria.
The government, led by President Bashar al-Assad, responded brutally with force and bullets and arresting hundreds of protesters. In a 2011 speech, President Barak Obama said: “The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.” He continued by implying if not, “President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad.” By July 2011, Syrian rebels formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and a civil war was imminent.
Assad took power after his father ruled the country for over 30 years with an iron fist. Initially, Assad was perceived as the country’s reformer with western education and a soft-spoken mannerism. However, Assad responded brutally to the protests and, in turn, created more anger from the people, leading to more violence and soon a full-blown war. This war led to a semi collapse of the regime. In 2015, it seemed inevitable that Assad’s reign would end soon; however, in September, with Russian and Iranian intervention, his regime survived. But large parts of the country are left in ruins, with millions left without coverage of basic needs.
The problems in Syria stem from greater issues, even before the Arab Spring incident. Citizens were dissatisfied over the government’s incompetency, lack of freedoms, and the overall living conditions in their country. Assad became president in 2000, followed by several human rights groups accusing the leader of torturing and killing political opponents throughout his presidency. The economy was doing well from 2000 to 2010, but their reforms were not well thought through and left millions behind. Along with high unemployment, government corruption, and a severe drought, Syria’s people were severely unhappy under Assad’s rule.
By late 2018, Assad reclaimed control of most of the country. However, rebel and jihadist groups and the Kurdish-led SDF alliance still held other parts of the country. This conflict has spawned a humanitarian and refugee crisis of massive proportions, with 6 million refugees flooding to Europe and neighbouring countries and over 13 million Syrians barely surviving on humanitarian assistance.
Since 2014, the United Nations has hosted nine rounds of mediated peace talks. Despite this intervention, little progress has been made. After negotiations failed in 2014, U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi apologized to the Syrian people in a statement, saying, “Unfortunately, the government has refused, which raises the suspicion of the opposition that, in fact, the government doesn’t want to discuss the (transitional governing body) at all,” he claimed. Both the Syrian government and rebels appear unwilling to agree on peace or even make an effort to define the terms of peace. Assad’s supporters and opposers cannot even agree on anything in terms of discussion, even simply the agenda of discussion or what part of the constitution they will be discussing. These mediated peace talks are basically talking shows without direction. If nothing changes, this war-torn area of the world is likely to be the site of more violence and instability.
Despite this difficulty, the United Nations has the mandate and option to put more effort into help the Syrian people. The U.N. is pro-people, pro-development. So where is it? First of all, the country desperately needs humanitarian assistance and preventative humanitarian aid before its conditions worsen. The majority of its citizens are barely surviving off the humanitarian help. However, there needs to be reform in the sense of the future. Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; teach him to fish, he will eat for the rest of his life.
The United Nations needs to think about the future along with them now. They have spent millions of dollars to truck in drinking water rather than fixing the actual water supply. There are 2.5 million children that aren’t going to school, thus diminishing their hopes for future generations. If these children don’t go to school, the chances of them joining ISIS or other terrorist organizations skyrocket- jeopardizing stability in the region. The United Nations is blocked from putting these efforts in, due to political pressures from big powers. However, the country needs help now and for the future and these are things that need to be done, independent from the political systems in the government.
This conflict invited terrorist organizations, such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, to join in on the chaos, along with many different mutations of ISIS. Milder and more pro-democracy opposition forces gradually mutated to ISIS-like organizations hardened by many years of fighting. Some mercenaries are being imported to other conflicts, such as in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. The United States furthered its involvement and led an international bombing campaign against ISIS targets since 2014.
In 2017 and 2018, the United States launched military attacks against alleged chemical weapons sites in Syria. Assad’s office spoke out against the 2017 attacks and said in a statement, “What America did is nothing but foolish and irresponsible behaviour, which only reveals its short-sightedness and political and military blindness to reality.” After the 2018 attack, U.S. President Donald Trump told the press: “The purpose of our actions tonight is to establish a strong deterrent against the production, spread, and use of chemical weapons. Establishing this deterrent is a vital national security interest of the United States. The combined American, British and French response to these atrocities will integrate all instruments of our national power—military, economic, and diplomatic.” Although former President Trump believes bombing was the best way to help prevent violence, it isn’t.
Earlier efforts from the United States included training, equipping, and arming opposition groups to pressure Assad, have been unsuccessful as well and ended up contributing to Syria’s government, which forced stronger reliance on Russia and Iran. Current U.S. policy, which is centred on isolating and sanctioning Syria, has done nothing but cripple the country’s already war-ravaged economy and failed to produce any behavioural change. The sanctions that the U.S. and E.U. have placed on Syria have led to severe shortages and contributed to the collapse of the Syrian currency. These punitive sanctions on Syria have produced unintended harmful consequences “by deepening and prolonging the misery of ordinary Syrians, enabling war profiteers and decimating the Syrian middle class, a potential engine for stability and long-term reform. It is safe to assume that the country’s leadership does not suffer because of sanctions,” as noted in an article in the Responsible Statecraft written by Jeffrey Feltman and Hrair Balian. Meanwhile, UN-led diplomatic efforts in Geneva centred on constitutional reforms have stalled.
This nation was once a middle-income country with developed infrastructure and is now reduced to its shadow. The country’s GDP has dropped by 80%, and the country is now low-income with millions barely surviving and extremely dependent on U.N. humanitarian assistance. This raises the questions of what went wrong, what should have been done, and what they left to do?
Firstly, the United States needs to consider exempting Syria from sanctions, all humanitarian efforts to combat COVID-19 in Syria, and beyond the recovery effort supporting rebuilding infrastructure. The country needs the facilitation of the reconstruction of essential civilian infrastructures, such as hospitals, schools, and irrigation facilities, to help the country rebuild. The United States has done nothing but bomb and place sanctions, which has led to more damage, more violence, and worsening the crisis more. As mentioned previously, this country desperately needs help rebuilding so that its future can be brighter than what today looks like.
Along with this, the United States and the European Union need to begin easing sanctions. However, these steps would only start when the U.S. and E.U. allies agree upon implementing concrete steps that would be discussed and agreed upon with the Syrian government. “Steps would include the release of political prisoners, dignified reception for returning refugees, civilian protection and unhindered countrywide humanitarian access, the removal of remaining chemical weapons, and political as well as security sector reforms, including good-faith participation in the U.N.’s Geneva process and greater decentralization,” as discussed by Feltman and Balian.
Though these steps may seem idealistic to help the nation repair, there are many barriers to success. The Syrian government hasn’t shown any willingness to compromise. For this step-by-step approach to succeed and show momentum, Syrian leadership needs to show verifiable action. With one slip-up, the country could end up suffering from the U.S. and E.U., suspending efforts and triggering “snapback” sanctions.
Although this mission could be seen as unrealistic, there isn’t much hope otherwise. The countries that had been advocating for Assad’s departure gave up years ago. However, they continued policies of pressure and isolation that failed to produce the reforms they intended. As explained by Feltman and Balian, “This is not a gift to the Syrian government, which is responsible for much of the deaths and destruction during the past 10 years. It is instead a suggestion that perpetuating the status quo will not suddenly produce different results than those we have witnessed since 2011. By publicly releasing a negotiated menu of reciprocal steps, the United States and Europe can, in essence, apply a different type of pressure on Syria to produce the reforms that have been rejected so far.”
The new presidential administration in the U.S. offers hope and an opportunity to change the ongoing detrimental and violent responses to Syria. With the right actions, this new peaceful and building approach can give the country a fresh start and help rebuild the damage that has devastated millions.
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